The further education sector is bracing itself for industrial unrest, with four colleges in the process of balloting for strike action over pay, MSPs have been told. College managements are also warning that expensive courses might have to be dropped because of financial pressures.
Further education staff are demanding wage rises which reflect growing living costs and hikes seen in the university sector, where staff pay is linked to inflation, according to Howard McKenzie, acting chief executive of the Association of Scotland's Colleges.
But cash-strapped colleges will not be able to meet the "aspirations" of staff, he predicted.
"We are looking at industrial unrest across the college sector," Mr McKenzie warned the parliament's education committee. "Most (colleges) can offer about 2.5 per cent, but the demands coming in are more like 5 per cent because of the university settlement."
Colleges, he explained, were having to cope with increased pension contributions and statutory requirements to carry out job evaluations and equal-pay audits, which were expected to "add significantly to wage costs".
They were wrestling with increased energy costs, he said, and higher interest rates on loans taken out to finance building projects. The new curriculum and proposed baccalaureate programme also had cost implications for colleges, he added.
"Scotland's colleges are facing a challenging operational environment where cost pressures are mounting," said Mr McKenzie. "This, in turn, leads to an increased threat to the financial security of colleges."
In order to balance the books, colleges will have tough choices to make about the courses they run, he said.
"A lot of colleges will be looking at expensive provision and deciding whether or not to continue with it. Teaching in a classroom is cheaper than in a workshop; teaching Higher National level is cheaper than teaching Access 1; if you are teaching someone who does not have dyslexia or other learning difficulties, it is cheaper than if you are teaching someone who has."
In spite of this, Mr McKenzie remained optimistic about the ability of colleges to "continue to offer excellent further and higher education opportunities in Scotland".
The education committee also heard from the universities, whose representatives warned that Scotland must up its investment in universities at the next spending review or fall behind the rest of the western world.
The universities were facing financial pressures which were more severe than anyone could have anticipated, according to Professor Anton Muscatelli, convener of Universities Scotland.
They had budgeted for staff pay rises of around 2.5 per cent but instead, with pay tied to inflation, they are looking at rises of 4.7 per cent, and it could get worse.
A "large cheque" from the Scottish Government would be welcome but they are a "sensible sector", he commented, and, instead, are pinning their hopes on getting funding right at the next spending review.